'Symposium' deftly blends comedy and tragedy



Muriel Spark.

Houghton Mifflin.

192 pages. $18.95. It's always rewarding to any audience when an artist reveals not only a brilliant style but also a comfortableness in executing this style. The audience of Muriel Spark is thus rewarded upon reading her latest novel of black comedy, "Symposium."

It is clear from the beginning where Ms. Spark is heading: In the midst of apparent civilization lurks the evil of a violent crime, and the perpetrators as well as the victims are to be found among those who bear their perfected and controlled civilization most painstakingly. Ms. Spark's every word counts, because she is concerned not just with what she is saying but how she is saying it: For her, the "how" is comedy. Her perception spins off the darker powers of coincidence and irony, leaving the reader often considering just as much the view she hasn't expressed directly as the view she has developed about a seemingly small slice of life.

Ms. Spark's perspectives here and in another recent work, "A Far Cry From Kensington," are fresh and stimulating, inviting the reader to ponder rather than to argue or acquiesce. Her novels, as stories, read easily, and yet her insights are not easily digested, partly because they require reflection before reaction and partly because they often are those truths that we agree with but wish we didn't have to.

As her epigraph, Ms. Spark quotes from Plato's "Symposium": ". . . the chief thing which he remembered was Socrates compelling the other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also."

Her talent is not only to understand that this interdependence between comedy and tragedy exists in life, but to reveal with wit and concern this interdependence in fictional life -- life of her own creating.

Ms. Spark's readers are invited to a dinner party in a stylish London home. We are assured of the modern authenticity of this society in that the host and hostess live together ("marriage would ruin everything") in highly controlled, amicable and dispassionate perfection. They have stayed together for 17 years to give their famous dinner parties, to avoid inconvenience (he needs her money; she needs his entertainment), and to avoid any change that would signify their growing old. After all,Hurley still is aspiring rather than arriving as an artist, and Chris cages her artist pet in his garret to keep her feeling young, needed and desirable.

Into this scene of forced serenity come the guests: middle-aged Lord Suzy and his young bride, who have just been robbed; Roland Sykes, a simpering cousin to Annabel Treece, who has an inconveniently persistent memory for unsavory names and faces; Erma and Ella Untzinger, last-minute replacements, who are responsible for the graduate student helping as an extra RTC server in tonight's gala; and Margaret and William Damien, newlyweds who met when she rescued him from buying bruised grapefruit in Marks and Spencer.

Floating in and out of the dinner party are minor characters and flashbacks that provide the novel's conflict and mystery as they ironically coincide with the main characters and present dinner party.

At the party, Margaret is portrayed as stunningly beautiful and good, but her past reveals that wherever she has been (with Uncle Magnus), a strange death has occurred. Did she arrange the meeting with William over grapefruits? We also meet William's mother, a domineering, wealthy magnate, who has been invited to the dinner party but will be late because she has decided to deliver, as a surprise, a Monet original to the flat she gave and poshly decorated for the newlyweds. Then there are the exchanges between different households' servants and the robberies of certain households while they are attending dinner parties at other households . . .

Ms. Spark's most recent symposium of characters shares a feast orchestrated with gourmet finesse. However, evil is about to boil over into their manicured lives. In "Symposium," comedy and tragedy are not separate forces, but merely different crests of the same undulations that toss humans between the lighter and darker sides of life.

Ms. Boylan is a writer living in the Washington area.

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